Antique Chrysanthemums

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More than 150 species of Chrysanthemum exist in nature.  In this article we are concerned with Asian species brought to Europe and North America as garden plants.  In ancient China gardeners selected interesting plants from the wild and over centuries developed chrysanthemums into popular garden plants.  A yellow garden variety and a white were known in China by the fifth century B.C.  By 1,000 A.D., in the time of the refined Sung dynasty, thirty-five named varieties of mums existed.  By 1700, the number had jumped to 300.

The florist chrysanthemums we grow today in America (and all over the world) are descended from wild and garden plants introduced from China.  The first species to reach Europe was Chrysanthemum morifolium, ancestor of modern florist mums.  Plants arrived in Marseilles, France in the 1780s, then were brought to England by 1790.  The flowers of this species are purple.  After 1800 more garden varieties arrived in Europe and America from China.  The yellow-flowered C. indicum arrived in England in the early nineteenth century.  Enthusiasts soon crossed C. morifolium x C. indicum to create a wide range of colors and shapes.  (It is not known how many of the diverse forms that appeared in the early 1800s were new hybrids; some may have been garden varieties received directly from China.)  By 1834 fifty varieties in several colors and shapes were available in Europe and America.

Robert Fortune introduced another Chinese species, C. rubellum, the Chusan Daisy, in 1846.  The advantage of this species and several of its hybrids is that it endures colder temperatures than the other two species.  The plants tend to be shorter, also.  The picture above (from The Cottage Garden, by Roy Genders, Pelham Books, 1969) shows several blooms of C. rubellum.  Because of the button-like shape of the flower this kind of mum came to be known as the “Pompon chrysanthemum”.   The pompon class is still recognized today by the National Chrysanthemum Society.

I once grew a beautiful pompon mum named ‘Paul Boissier’, but lost it in a move.  It grows to about three feet or more and has beautiful, double orange and bronze flowers in the lovely circular shape of the pompon mums.  Few heirloom mums survive today, and only a very few are commercially available.  Shirley Hibberd, in his book The Amateur’s Flower Garden, published in 1871, listed 100 named cultivars of chrysanthemum.  None of them is available from a nursery today!  It is probable that if some of these old named plants do still exist, they would have to be re-identified.  I am always looking for old mums, especially pompons, but have not had much success.

Today the National Chrysanthemum Society recognizes thirteen distinct classes of mums, defined by their flower shapes.  Emphasis seems to be on contemporary varieties, not on heirloom mums, but membership does expose one to the great diversity of modern mums available.  Membership is only $20.00 per year for an individual.  Youth memberships (under 17), garden club affiliation (organization) memberships, and life memberships are also available.   The website for the society is mums.org.  Two benefits of membership are a cultural manual for new members and a quarterly journal.  Why not join and voice a desire to locate, preserve and propagate antique chrysanthemums?


 

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